GALLOWAY, N.J. — AAU basketball has a stigma.
Whether or not it’s deserved is a different argument for a different day, but the fact of the matter is that the prevailing school of thought is that AAU basketball and the grassroots, shoe company culture is what has ruined the American game.
Competitiveness and winning at all costs is sacrificed for exposure and individual success. Team play and the beauty of running an offense goes by the wayside as the ‘do him’ mentality takes over. Shot selection is a thing of the past. Fundamentals a distant memory.
That’s what the critics will tell you.
But at it’s heart, AAU basketball is a good thing. It’s a chance to earn a scholarship. It’s a chance to test yourself against the best players in the country, not just the best players in your city. Exposure certainly is anything but a negative.
Few teams break the mold of the AAU stereotype like the Jersey Shore Warriors.
Tony Sagona has been running the program for 35 years. Matt Carroll and Troy Murphy can both be counted as alums. Former Notre Dame guard Kyle McAlarney and incoming Notre Dame freshman Stephen Visturia are both products of the Warriors. Heading into Elevate Hoops’ Live in AC tournament, the Warriors had won their last three AAU tournaments as well.
They’re not part of the EYBL. They’re not sponsored by Adidas or Under Armour. But they send players to college. Some of those guys have made the NBA.
And most importantly, they do it all while winning basketball games.
“I don’t think it’s bad,” Sagona said of AAU basketball, “I just think you get so much talent on one court. Kids don’t want to buy into the unselfish. You stack a team with all all-americans. The sponsored teams are what creates the problem. They lose value when they play for sneakers and shirts. They forget what they’re there for.”
Sagona says the key top the success of his program is that they target a specific kind of player. “He knows how to play, has a good mentality,” he said. “We get a few athletes, very unselfish. We practice that way. The competitiveness, we drill it in.”
“With the reputation that we have, they come to us.”
Dominique Uhl is the perfect example. A 6-foot-8 German transplant, Uhl is an athletic forward with developing ball skills. He can hit a three and he can handle the ball pretty well for a guy his size, but he needs to add weight and strength to get more comfortable playing against stronger front court players at the next level. A three star recruit according to Rivals, Uhl’s recruitment is gaining momentum, as Maryland, Northwestern, Iowa, Penn State, Temple and St. Joe’s have all offered him.
How did Uhl wind up with the Warriors on the AAU circuit?
“I tried out with the New Jersey Playaz before, but I didn’t like the style,” Uhl said. He fit in much better with the Warriors, who base their system around playing smart basketball: running an offense, spreading the floor, making the right pass.
For Sagona, it’s less being a coach than it is being a general manager, bringing in the right players and the right pieces without upsetting the team’s chemistry.
“They already know how to play,” he said. “We manage timeouts, substitute, yell at them a little bit.”
There are at least four Division I players on the roster, with Ivy League and Patriot League programs lining the sidelines every time the Warriors take the floor.
In general, AAU basketball’s reputation is much worse than the truth of its existence.
But even if you believe the worst, spending an hour watching the Warriors will change your perception.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.